Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch
Boss MacTavin's Arrival

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How to Grow a Mustache Up Your Arse: Part 1

Of all the world's great mustaches, the wildest was Salvador Dali's.

The flamboyant, eccentric genius was every bit as colorful as his trademark upper lip. But the one thing I like better than even the best of his paintings is his answer to this question:

What would he do if a fascist regime forced him to shave off his mustache?

The question astonished the painter. He replied that he would happily rise to the great challenge--and grow a secret mustache everywhere, in his armpits, in his navel...even in his asshole. 

Years ago, I had what I still think was an inspired idea: a wild blend of Southern Scotch. I saw the two themes fused within a single man: a former Scottish athlete who developed a crush on the South, which did not return his affection. Beaten almost to death and half-blinded, he returned as a new man five years later A cross between the Butler Boys--you know, Gerard and Rhett. A man of wealth and power now, founder of Boss Corrections.

Still, I think, a strong idea. But from the time I'd first conceived of my hero, Boss MacTavin, and my own reinvention as an ebook writer, I'd changed as as much as the times had. Boss' vintage Dodge Charger disappeared after the first book. After the third book, he outgrew his trademark Colt Python. At the same time, he kept his hybrid accent...his preference for shades of Confederate gray...his Southern courtliness fused with raw Scottish passion.

Dali's mustache, though, entered the picture with the recent backlash against the Confederate flag. I found myself forced to redo the cover of Southern Scotch because of its bad-ass Rebel flag. As luck would have it, this worked out well. A new cover artist succeeded in 'branding' the Boss MacTavin mysteries: unified layouts and lettering with a subtle Tartan cloth and a strong touch of danger.

And I found I was able to keep tiny representations of the forbidden flag in Boss' wardrobe: a lapel or tie pin, for example...a small flag on one sleeve of his jacket...without branding him as a redneck. Boss is certainly wild and quirky, but he isn't this:

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or this:

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or this:

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The branded covers, I believed, were a huge step forward. Nevertheless, I was still at a loss to convey Southern Scotch in my photos. How could I with one flag verboten and legs too spindly for a kilt?

Well, I found myself thinking of Dali's remark...and suddenly I found a way of growing a Dali mustache up my arse--just in time for my new promo photo. 

Stay tuned for the Daliesque conclusion next week. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How to beat a writing block with a common film technique

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So today, a glorious day, in the writing of the fourth Boss MacTavin mystery, I found myself suddenly blocked. An odd time to be blocked, now that I was nearing the home stretch. A little more detective work, loose ends to tie up, then a terrific action scene in a forsaken alley.

And yet today in the Writer Room of the central library I stared and stared at the naked page. Major inconsistencies in the tale tormented me: how could the main villain not have seen through Boss's ingenious disguise if two other villains, now dead, had been aware of it? Etc. That sort of thing. I couldn't see how to resolve this and moving forward seemed impossible.

What the hell was I to do, go days or weeks without writing when I'd written over 50,000 words?

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Better writers than I am have written of this. And I took heart from Stephen King:

Still, I had to slug my way free my own way. And my mind turned to how some great movies are shot: entirely out of sequence. Scenes are shot when certain actors are available...or when a location permit is obtained...or when the weather is right.

So, while I wait for 'the weather' to improve on the novel's next scene, I can move on to the ending, which is fairly clear in my mind. At least the big brawl in the alley. That scene may help fill in much of the blank space preceding. If, I'll finish what I can, then begin the second draft, with hopes the inconsistencies resolve themselves as I go.

The worst thing, as I see it now, is to sit and brood and do nothing. Keep going, preserve the momentum--and keep the cameras rolling!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

On the Bloody Good, Good Bloody Art of Surprise

There's nothing quite like a good jack-in-the-box to take a writer's breath away and send him smiling back to work.

I outline more than most, I know, to screw up my nerve to begin a new book. But I outline only to a point, after which I may know the main 'beats' of the tale, though not the connecting links from one chapter to the next. And sometimes the beats have long spaces between: for example, from my hero's realization that X was actually murdered and that Y is the his knowledge of how to Correct this.

My new WIP (work in progress), the fourth Boss MacTavin mystery, has blindsided me repeatedly with its infernal surprises. Now, I don't mean only the plot twists, which I can't give away here. I mean little mysteries that simply refused to come clear...until now: how, when and where Boss will get to use the fab new gun he was given in Boss #3, when he's been forbidden in this book the use of any weapon--and is regularly checked by the, when and where he'll get a scene with Suzy Wong, his new love, though it isn't safe for her to be with him now in Seattle...etc.

The question for me is no longer whether to outline or not. To me an over-structured tale that drives the tale's beats with a whip is as flawed as a shaggy dog story that's been made up on the fly. Whether s/he writes down the outline or conceives it on long, brooding walks by the beach, the writer should begin, I think, with a working sense of the book's structure and a grasp of the general beats.

That said, I now would add that surrender is also essential. The best stories are not paint-by-number. And the real heart often won't come clear until we've begun. When that happens, we'd better be humble enough to turn the reins over and let Baby drive.

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Gotta go. Still waiting to find out how to get Boss MacTavin his gun!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Should We Give Our Readers Hell...or Give Them What They Want?

Almost all writers I've known have been torn between two impulses they're helpless to resist. On the one hand, if they've worked for years and are finally enjoying some well-earned success, they're more than a little scared of messing with the formula. The voice of Success urges:

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And so they do, and continue to do, until the rebel devil cries:

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They begin to feel enslaved by their successful series or threatened in some unfathomable way by the love readers feel for one standalone book. Maddened by fear or resentment, they either tank the series or give it a twist that will turn readers off. Or, rather than follow their one runaway success with a sequel or something in a similar vein, they do something offputtingly different. Ah, the sweet siren call of

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One remarkably talented writer I know is taking time off from a series of Tartan Noir mysteries--one that's been gathering steam--to work on an historical epic of 100,000 words. Another mystery writer I follow swings almost depravedly from mystery to romance to sci-fi. Hey, even Conan Doyle felt compelled to try at least to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Lawrence Sanders comes to mind as a supreme example of a writer who perfectly balanced his commercial instincts and his independent spirit. Unwilling to grind out a Deadly Sin novel a year (the Sin books took 3-4 years to do), he launched a second series--of shorter and lighter Commandments. Oh, and he wrote two limited series of just two books apiece--the Peter Tangent and the Timothy Cone books. Meanwhile, always busy, he wrote many standalone titles, from erotica to thrillers to capers. Then, when he'd grown older, he launched the easy and breezy Archy McNally series.

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The man I call The Colonel had brilliance to burn and a game plan that reminds us of Russell Blake--who's also committed to writing whatever he pleases to write.

For those who are less prolific, Claude Bouchard offers an excellent alternative. Lightly scattered among entries in his bestselling Vigilante series are standalones written to appease the rebel devil's voice.

We can see the same spirit at work in Clint Eastwood's early film career: one film for himself to each three for his fans. The older Clint likes to say that he'd always been able to tell his fans to buzz off if they weren't amused. But the man who made the two Whichways had one eye at least on box office success.

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Somehow we all have to find our own way to calm those dueling voices.